08 June 2009

Review: Longing for Recognition

I've just finished reading Jacqui Gingras' extraordinary book, Longing for Recognition: The Joys, Complexities, and Contradictions of Practicing Dietetics and I want to share a few thoughts about it.

First, here's a declaration of interest: my PhD involves some of the themes in this book, my co-supervisor is one of Gingras' associates, and some of my work is to be published by Raw Nerve later this year.

Longing for Recognition is an autoethnography (my crap definition: a social study of a group of people where the person doing the study is included and central to the research rather than a remote observer) presented as fiction. It is based on Gingras' own research into dietetic culture and teaching in Canada, where she is a dietician. Dietetics is of interest to fat people and fat activists because, amongst other reasons, it is the place where medically-sanctioned weight loss attempts occur, and where dominant medical beliefs about fatness are transmitted between expert and patient/consumer/client/passive recipient of superior medical knowledge.

The book follows the stories of a group of people involved in teaching and learning dietetic practice, it explores the way that people are socialised into dietetics. This broad group of people includes Jacqui herself, her partner and baby, an academic manager, a lecturer, various dietetic colleagues, students, and their families and friends. The chapters are arranged around the curriculum of an imaginary course on the social, theoretical and ethical considerations of dietetic practice, but also include accounts of supervision sessions between dieticians facilitated by a psychotherapist; coffeeshop meetings between friendly colleagues; letters written to academic s/hero Judith Butler; poems; accounts of clinical encounters. Using this framework, Gingras is able to give an incredibly rich portrayal of a time and a place and to discuss some of the nuanced implications of dietetic practice which, as we see through our encounters with the characters, are infinitely contingent.

Longing for Recognition investigates dietetic teaching and culture from different perspectives, not just theoretical ways of seeing, for example through an imaginary dialogue with poststructuralism, but also through the filters that participants bring. In this way Gingras is able to address an abundance of themes with great complexity, such as: the university tenure system, work/life balance, considering Health At Every Size, working ethically within unethical systems, teaching methods, emotional aspects of health practice, relationships, race, motherhood and more. It asks of its subjects: what should we be teaching? What is dietetics about? How can we work with people sensitively and appropriately? These questions are surely relevant to other health professions and, whilst reading this book, I was often reminded of my own training as a counsellor/psychotherapist.

Whilst fiction enables Gingras to make central what might be hidden or marginal in more traditional texts, the quality of that fiction is not always as strong as the quality of the research. The characters are earnest and somewhat anodyne, they lack edges that would make them more compelling in traditional fiction, and this (Canadian?) earnestness leads to some unintentional humour, there's a lot of herbal tea drinking, hugging and dodgy fashion going on, for example, and some of the psychotherapeutic interventions during the supervision scenes are somewhat preposterous. I suppose these issues beg the question of whether one reads this book as a novel, and judges it against the standards that one might judge a novel, or if one suspends that kind of judgment and relates to Longing for Recognition as a different kind of read altogether.

Nevertheless, Gingras' bold and experimental writing up of her research is inspiring in itself. One of my fears about the academy is that it turns thinking, feeling, complicated people into scholarly sausage-meat capable only of reiterating formulaic arguments or products. Gingras shows that this need not be the case, although her excellent, probing and brave work exposes the tired nature of too much academic research. I am also grateful that Gingras is able to present this complexity in an accessible fashion without losing any of the detail or patronising her readers.

Speaking of reading, Gingras includes an appendix of all the readings that the fictional lecturer assigns her class. This may make me sound a bit sad but I think it would be fun to re-read Longing for Recognition as though one was a student in the class, joining in with the readings and discussions with the characters. Such an activity suggests that this is a book that has wider possibilities, that it could take on a life beyond paper and pages, and create exciting new dialogues between readers, authors, teachers, students, colleagues, thinkers, activists and practitioners.

Gingras, J. R. (2009) Longing for Recognition: The Joys, Complexities, and Contradictions of Practicing Dietetics. York: Raw Nerve Books



Michelle said...

I'm so glad you reviewed this book! I recently had the chance to read it, as well.

I'm probably biased, as a dietetics student, but I couldn't put it down. It was fascinating to read a very personal investigation into how dietetics is taught.

Jacqui is a remarkable lady.

Charlotte Cooper said...

No problem Michelle! Yes, it's a fascinating book.